spinning top, maggie mcreynolds blog

Proud Graduate of MSU

Everybody loves a good story—no one, perhaps, more than the storyteller herself. But sometimes I find that I am no longer telling the tale; instead, the tale is telling me. I’ve forgotten that my story is just that: a saga informed by my own perceptions, not some kind of objective truth. When that happens, I am trapped in my own creation. I’m not living my life. I’m not moving forward. I am simply rehashing the same tired stuff, over and over. My story is now running the show.

A story might go like this: some moron wasn’t looking where he was going, so I was in a terrible car accident and I was in the hospital for a month and I lost my job and none of it was my fault and now I’m never going to find a job as good as that one and my life is ruined forever. I hate that guy who did this to me.

Or it might go like this: I was in a freak car accident and spent a month in the hospital. During that time, I got a chance to see how many people really loved me and cared about me. And because I was off work for so much time, I finally broke free of a job I didn’t enjoy working with people who didn’t value me enough to hang in there for me while I was injured. Now I am free to reinvent myself, and I am looking forward to what happens next.

Same principal characters. Same events. One story is one of loss and anger; the other is one of hope. The thing is, they’re each just a story—and there are dozens of other ways to tell it. A version in which the accident is the injured party’s fault. A version in which the accident was no accident, or a perhaps one in which the accident was predestined to happen. It’s a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. It’s a cautionary tale. Ultimately, they’re all spin.

None of those stories happens to be mine, but I’ve got plenty of my own, just as we all do. It does me good to remember that they are just that: my own dramas, with my own spin. Thinking about them this way makes it easier to keep them where they should be: in the past. And it heightens my awareness that I also tell stories about those around me, about what I think they’re thinking and feeling, when the truth is, I have no idea. Recognizing my stories for what they are keeps me in the present, instead of reliving the past or conjecturing about the future, which I can plan for but can’t possibly predict.

All I really know is this moment. Which, even as I write about it, is already a thing of the past. Anything else, the spin doctoring, the assumptions, the prognostications…all of that simply buys me a full scholarship to what a friend of mine calls MSU: Making Stuff Up.

So at this moment, all is well in my world. The next moment will have to take care of itself.


baked potato with sour cream, maggie mcreynolds blog

No More Sour Cream

I grew up in a family of people who liked sour cream on their baked potatoes. And since children learn by way of example and I was above all else determined to win the grown ups over by imitating everything they said and did, I dutifully put sour cream on my baked potatoes, too. Except I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.

A pat of butter, a shake or two of salt, a small dollop of sour cream, and…hmmm. The thing just didn’t taste right. I’d watch everyone else snorking down their creamy potatoes with their blissed-out expressions and think maybe I’d messed up the proportions. So I’d add some more sour cream. And a little bit more. But it was to no avail. It didn’t matter how much or how little sour cream I put on the thing, I just never achieved the level of potato nirvana to which I aspired.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that it took me 18 years to figure out what you’ve doubtless deduced in about fifteen seconds: turns out I don’t like sour cream on baked potatoes. And yes, DUH, when you don’t like something, piling more of it on your plate doesn’t make you like it even a little bit better.

It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Yet how many of us bail out of a dysfunctional relationship only to sign up for more of the same with the next paramour? Or plug away dutifully at a job that numbs our souls, only to take that promotion, or go after a bigger job just like it, simply because it’s what we think we ought to do and it’s—well—what we’ve always done?

It’s hard to admit that something doesn’t work for us, especially when familial custom or societal values or our inner critic tells us that we should.

How could you leave that gorgeous woman with the trust fund? How could you ditch that tenure-track job? How could you break up the belly-dancing troupe for no better reason than you just aren’t enjoying yourself?

If you don’t like sour cream, you don’t like sour cream. Trust your own palate and the inner workings of your own soul.

Photo by JaBB, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped

Happy New Year

The first New Year’s Eve I can remember, I was six years old and spending the night at the home of my grandparents’ friends, where a big party was taking place. The other children and I agreed to go to bed at a reasonable hour, but only by exacting a promise that we would be awakened just before midnight and allowed to try champagne. We were so excited we could hardly fall asleep, but when the grown-ups came to wake us and usher us downstairs, we were groggy and grumpy and our feet were cold. I stood yawning and swaying in a sea of backsides and bellies while the crowd roared and someone pressed a plastic glass with an inch of champagne into my little fist. I dutifully took a sip, choked, and had a coughing fit while the grown-ups laughed. I thought, I left my warm bed for THIS???

Since then, I’ve spent New Year’s Eves at bars, in restaurants, at friends’ homes, and on my own sofa. One year in a Chicago bar, a drunk next to me wept onto my shoulder because he really really wanted to write a short story, he said, but every time he wrote anything, it came out as a poem. Another year, at a party, someone spiked the punch with Everclear and by midnight all of us were drunk to the point of hallucinating and cramming ourselves in layers into the hostess’s bathroom because, we insisted, that way we would always remember just where we’d been at midnight.

There was the New Year’s Eve that I, two months pregnant, threw up into a snowbank as my husband and I stood on the snowclad shores of a lake and listened to people firing guns into the air on the opposite shore. There was the New Year’s Eve four days after my father died when I sat, still stunned with grief, in my grandparents’ Chicago living room and dully watched the ball descend in Times Square on TV. There was the New Year’s Eve when my son was just five months old and not yet sleeping through the night, and there was no way I was staying up until midnight when I would have to nurse him two hours before and again two hours after.

Last year, we were at a small dinner party. Near midnight, we all crowded into the kitchen around a small television and chatted while my son and the hosts’ daughter sat with their faces inches from the small screen. At one point the girl, then eight, turned impatiently to watch the grown-ups laughing and talking and paying little attention to the action in Times Square, and said feverishly, “I can’t believe you’re all standing around like it’s NOTHING!!!!”

I didn’t ask her, once the ball had dropped and we had all cheered and clinked glasses, if the final denouement was as disappointing to her as it had been to my young self, all those years ago. I don’t know what I thought would happen back then. I think I expected that at the stroke of midnight the world—and I—would suddenly feel different. Like Cinderella, only hopefully in reverse: pumpkins turning into carriages and rags into gowns.

Is New Year’s Eve what we make of it? Or is it what we don’t? I find that the New Year’s Eves when I have tried to set out to have a Great Time have often been tiring and disappointing. The ones that come as they will, that are what they are, are often quietly moving.

This year, we have no big plans. It’s possible we won’t all still be awake at midnight, though I expect to be. I’m looking for some closure on some of the challenges of the past year—or at least some closure on my feelings about them. Time to write it all down, the stuff I’m ready to say farewell to, and send the scraps of paper up in smoke in a roaring fire. Time to write it all out, the stuff I’m moving toward, to make a vision for my future that I can hold as I move into 2009.

Wherever you are, however this New Year’s Eve finds you, may it find you at peace with what is behind you. And may it find you ready and rested and exhilarated over what is yet to come.

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